Undoll, by Tanya Grae. Portland, Oregon: YesYes Books, September 2019. 104 pages. $16.20, paper.
After finishing a book, it’s not uncommon for readers to express how they were left wanting more, wishing, for example, that an author would have expanded on a certain section or added to the themes explored. The often quoted saying by Paul Valéry is that a poem is never complete, but merely abandoned, and the same could be said for poetry collections. There are many books I’m sure you’ve read that have left a lingering void, one that remains even after you’ve returned the work. Tanya Grae’s Undoll, thankfully, is not one of those collections, and with poems that illuminate the confinements women are subjected to by society, readers will return to her work again and again, confident that with each read they will learn and experience something they hadn’t before.
Grae’s style varies considerably, with lyrical poems to narrative pieces utilizing the entirety of the page. Regardless of form, the longing the speaker feels for better aspects of life is conveyed through sharp and honest language. The proem sets the tone for the collection, offering readers insight into themes that will later be fleshed out:
I want no evidence I am dirty.
All the fruit I picked, a dress full,
I let drop—
on the heart pine floor.
Purpling under the skin, all
I thought I wanted:
the house with its backyard river,
swing set sundial. Enough wild
bougainvillea sprang to be kept
overlooking the gate.
There is catch here that the speaker recognizes: the life she thought she wanted, that seemingly picturesque setting and serenity, comes only through experiencing a “dirtiness” first. That feeling of being “dirty” is society’s expectations forced—however explicit or implicit—upon her, that constant gaze that she must fit a certain mold. This renders the speaker at times into an object for others, and in “Oblation” we see the speaker almost as a specimen, one that can be studied to someone else’s benefit:
My gynecologist asks if others may watch.
I consent. Already numb, why not?
There should be an audience for this end.
An antiphon could be written in the hum
of machinery & whirr. My feet cold on metal
stirrups, my legs bent high in a squat,
I tune the sterile out. After today I won’t
have a period, that punctuation I prayed for
at times will disappear.
On the one hand, the speaker feels a certain sense of power in being free of her menstruation, but on the other, she has lost control (at least in the immediate physical aspect), and this loss lingers as the speaker, gynecologist, and observers “tear [her] cradle down.”
Throughout the book, Grae explores the body as an object constrained by the limits placed upon it. In poems like “If Barbie had a Brain,” Barbie—who is not a representation of the everyday woman (since Barbie has never been), but rather the intentional cliché of one—is fatigued with the attention she receives and thereby the expectation of the image she must fit, namely in maintaining a perfect body:
No, I mean if Barbie could talk,
she would tell you she’s starved
for more than an eyelid’s attention,
ass clenched tight, kind of holding.
Asphyxiated from sucking in, waiting
to stop the tiptoe, she objects
to being posed, back aching ending
horizontal & naked, because
her clothes are too much of a hassle—
your illusion undressed.
Barbie’s worth is dependent on those who dictate what is worthy, and even when the “illusion” is undressed (stripped quite literally of what was covering Barbie’s body up) she remains an object both men and women can judge.
The dependency on others at times can create unintended anxiety. Add social media to the mix, and we see the reflective thoughts of a speaker longing for a connection that transcends the ambiguous space of the internet:
Someone thinks I’m beautiful again
& likes posts of my day, comments.
I stifle smiles & feel uncontainable—
bungeed off either & the interplay.
Punch drunk in this blue-sky space
a rush of the past, the in-between,
whole chapters, I open annuals
& albums from storage. His change
in status: single.
The potential to experience something new with someone new turns the key to the door of possibility, and although here, in “Facebook Sonnet,” no contact is truly made, in other poems, Grae paints this anxiety when it actually is:
I let down my hair
you took off your tie
& reached for my hand
my need to kiss you
your cocksure play
no coffee no dessert
The encounter might be brief, but the speaker has nevertheless crossed a threshold and is free from whatever burdens (family, marriage, etc.) were weighing her down previously. There may be no “coffee” or “dessert,” but there doesn’t need to be when finally you get what you want and what you think you deserve. Elsewhere, however, the reality that your desires won’t last forever is detailed quite somberly:
There is a home where I shrink inside
to fit every room. More out of body
than furniture, but I have been that too,
posable in the kitchen & bath,
tub filled to the brim, shower falling.
Remember? I have been the carpet
& Queen Anne chair, coffee table set
for you, dresser, with belts & ties.
For many women, living a domesticated life is their only option, and they become, like the speaker in the poem “Doll, House” (above), the environment they occupy every day. If a body is a house, then Grae’s speaker not only knows every inch of it, but understands, rather reluctantly, that it is what others often depend on, a space that is aesthetically pleasing as it is practically purposeful.
I said at the beginning that Undoll checks off everything a reader would want in a book, satiating the need for narrative, emotion, philosophical inquiry, and an overall arc that brings themes full circle. However, it’s safe to say that the speaker in many of these poems is left unsatisfied, with a void she confronts and dissects in a manner that if she can’t completely understand, she can at least live with. There have been many great poetry debuts in 2019, and Undoll is undoubtedly one of them. Insightful, memorable, and never shy from detailing the most uncomfortable aspects of truth, Grae has written a remarkable collection, and we are fortunate enough to experience every moment it has to offer.
Esteban Rodríguez is the author of Dusk & Dust (Hub City Press, 2019) and the micro-chapbook Soledad (Ghost City Press, 2019). His poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in The Gettysburg Review, New England Review, Shenandoah, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. He lives with his family and teaches in Austin, Texas.